2013 Audi RS 5 review: There's a beast within this sexy sports coupe

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CNET Editors' Rating

4 stars Excellent
  • Overall: 8.5
  • Cabin tech: 9.0
  • Performance tech: 8.0
  • Design: 10.0
Pricing Unavailable
Reviewed:
Updated:

The Good The 2013 Audi RS 5 Coupe's V-8 engine delivers gobs of power with a smooth torque curve and sounds amazing. Drive Select and multiple transmission modes allow a bit of performance customization. Audi's MMI Navigation plus system is eye-catching, feature-rich, and easy to use.

The Bad The nonadaptive suspension transmits a good deal of road noise and bumps into the cabin. Stated fuel economy is optimistic at best.

The Bottom Line The 2013 Audi RS 5 is an exceptional sports coupe that balances its, frankly, brutal performance with some of the best dashboard tech in the business.

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At first glance, the 2013 RS 5 Coupe Quattro is Audi's answer to BMW's M3 -- nothing more, nothing less. But I find it interesting that the automaker has gone about challenging the Ultimate Driving Machine in a very Mercedes-Benz fashion.

The RS 5 actually reminds me more of Benz' C63 AMG . Like the C63, the RS 5 is a bit of a brute -- sort of a German muscle car, if you will. Both cars start with a capable sports coupe and then cram massive, powerful engines under the hoods. Both seem to place a greater emphasis on their power plants, their exceptional handling and corner capability seeming almost secondary to the raucousness of the engine note.

But, as I'll explain in just a bit, those three cars -- the RS 5, M3, and C63 -- go about competing for the hearts of luxury sports car drivers in very different ways, with different and unique strengths.

One way that the Audi definitely stands out, if you'll forgive me for being subjective for a moment, is its looks. I've stated dozens of times before that the A5 is one of the best-looking cars on the road today. The RS 5 takes those good looks to a more aggressive level -- even more so than the Audi S5 coupe -- without taking away from the smooth curves and proportions that make the chassis' design so great.

The RS 5 features a larger, mesh grille that dips deeper toward the earth within its more aggressive front bumper. Take a peek at the rear fenders and you'll notice subtle flaring. The whole car rides lower on its RS-specific suspension and sits atop RS-specific 19-inch wheels. Our example was fitted with optional 20-inch rollers shod in summer tires, a $1,000 option. Every part of the exterior design just seems to work together, particularly when finished in our tester's Sepang Blue pearl-effect paint and punctuated by Audi's trademark LED illumination for the daytime running lights and taillamps.

It's just my opinion (and your mileage may vary), but the 2013 Audi RS 5 definitely beats the Bimmer and the Benz in this sports coupe fashion show.

2013 Audi RS 5 coupe
Our Audi RS 5 coupe's handsome looks are punctuated by futuristic LED lighting and gorgeous pearl-effect paint. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Engine, suspension
Under the hood of the RS 5, you'll find a brawny 4.2-liter V-8 engine that makes its power the honest way: naturally aspirated at atmospheric pressure. Stated output is a grin-inducing 450 peak horsepower and 317 pound-feet of torque, while the EPA-estimated fuel economy is an optimistic 18 mpg combined, breaking down to 16 city mpg and 23 mpg on the highway.

I'm sure that it's possible that the two metrics can coexist -- power and efficiency -- but you won't be able to take full advantage of one without compromising the other. Spend too much time playing with your ponies and your fuel efficiency will take a nose dive into the single digits.

Power flows through an S Tronic automatic transmission on its way to the wheels. This gearbox is only special in that it's got seven forward ratios, adding a tall cruising gear atop the typical six-gear configuration for increased highway fuel efficiency, and features sport and manual shift programs. The driver can change gears with either the console shift lever or by tapping steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Unlike most "sport" transmission programs, the RS 5's S Tronic Sport program is seriously aggressive, but I'll get back to that bit momentarily.

4.2-liter V-8
The 4.2-liter V-8 delivers its power and torque with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Josh Miller/CNET

Our RS 5 was equipped with an optional $1,000 Sports exhaust system that sounded fantastic. Fire the RS up by holding its start button and you'll be greeted with a deep bark that settles into an unobtrusive rumble. Get rolling and hold the revs with either the sport or manual program and the engine's roar becomes deep and guttural, not unlike that of a muscle car, but with a metallic edge. Upshift and the gear change is accompanied by a snarl that I couldn't help but grin at every single time. That's to say nothing of the force of the acceleration pressing me into the seat.

On the other end of the gearbox, power is split between all four corners via Audi's signature Quattro all-wheel-drive system. The sport-purposed RS model's center differential is biased toward the rear axle, sending 60 percent of its available torque to the back end in its resting state. However, the split can be adjusted between 70:30 and 15:85 front-to-rear distribution as the electronics deem fit. On the rear axle, the RS 5 features Audi's Active Differential, which enables the coupe to torque-vector or actively send power to the outside wheel when cornering to sort of tuck the rear end into a turn rather than passively reacting to available traction like an open or limited-slip differential would.

Multiple drive modes
The RS 5 uses a big, beefy engine and a fixed sport suspension (rather than an adaptive system like the S6 and S7 use), so it'd be pretty easy to characterize the coupe as a big dumb brute (at least, relative to some of its stablemates). That's not the case, however, as Audi has built in a bit of performance customization with its Drive Select system.

rear spoiler
At 75 mph, the rear spoiler deploys and remains raised until the speed drops below 50 mph. Josh Miller/CNET

Let's start with the transmission which, as I stated earlier, features standard/comfort, sport, and manual programs. The standard mode emphasizes smooth shifts and efficiency, but with 315 pound-feet of torque on tap, it's not like this default drive mode leaves the RS 5 undrivable. Gears are short-shifted (it's almost comical how quickly the coupe blows through ratios when you really listen for the changes), but the engine's grunt is never more than a stab of the pedal away.

I've grown accustomed to driving most cars around in their sport mode to squeeze out a bit more responsiveness, but the RS 5's Sport mode is a proper sport mode, almost too aggressive for casual driving. It holds each gear longer, but also rips off throttle-blipped downshifts when braking with a satisfying bark of the exhaust. This is great when preparing to blast out of a corner, but if you're not charging into a corner and braking at at least 8/10th -- which is usually the case when you're just driving around town -- the blipped downshifts can cause the car to lurch forward momentarily. This is annoying at best and a bit frightening at worst, particularly when you're slowing at a traffic light behind another car. It's even more annoying when this lurch comes midcorner.

The manual shift mode adds a welcome degree of predictability to the transmission's behavior. I liked that it allows me, the driver, to fire off those barking downshifts and snarling upshifts at a tap of a paddle, but doesn't surprise me with jerky midcorner shifts. I'm sure that the sport mode is good for the track, but manual and comfort were the modes that I usually defaulted to for my performance testing on public roads.

The Drive Select system also exercises control over the RS 5's power-steering system, making the car feel light and easy enough to handle with one hand in its comfort mode and adding a nice, heavy steering effort and twitch responsiveness in its Dynamic mode. Finally, users can set the Sport differential to either Dynamic or Comfort modes, increasing or decreasing the way the coupe tucks its nose when pressed into a corner.

Users have four presets for the Drive Select system. Dynamic puts the steering, transmission, and differential into their most aggressive modes. Comfort settles the entire vehicle and Auto lets the computer decide for you. There's also a fourth mode called Individual that lets you mix and match each system's settings. So, if you want Sport steering and differential, but only Comfort transmission -- a setup that still leaves the RS 5 much more capable on a casual back-road blast than most cars that have passed through the Car Tech garage this year -- you can have that at the touch of a button.

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2013 Audi RS 5 Coupe

Part Number: 101286075
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  • Body style Coupe
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